Wednesday, 19 October 2011

lock, stock and barrel

For the past two years, Paula has run a series of workshops for newly qualified teachers on behalf of the extramural department of one of Hong Kong’s leading universities (see above). In the first of these, she starts by showing three short video clips of teachers in action and asks her students which of the three deserves an award for good teaching.

Professor Lock is an eminent German physicist at MIT, and the first video shows him explaining some fundamental concepts in electricity while drawing diagrams and writing formulae on a blackboard. Although he does turn to face his audience from time to time, usually to ask a question that he immediately answers himself, for much of the time he is scribbling on the board and talking simultaneously. He jokingly suggests that everything he is explaining is so simple that his audience will wonder why any explanation is necessary.

Dr Stock is an economist at the Harvard Business School. He is seen using all the latest multimedia gadgetry to augment his performance. Assessing the three teachers, Dr Stock’s style is most akin to that of a business presentation, and, like a typical businessman, he reads his PowerPoint slides aloud rather than using them as an aide memoire, something to be developed in greater detail.

Dr Barrel is a Chinese lecturer at a Hong Kong university who is seen addressing his students in heavily accented English. He is reading from a prepared script, and unlike in the first two videos there are shots of the students, all Chinese, who are writing furiously in an attempt to get everything down.

Alert readers will have spotted that Paula had set a deliberate snare here. None of the three represents a paradigm of good teaching, because what is missing in all three clips is any form of interaction between teacher and students. In the video of Professor Lock, at one point a small window opens in the corner of the screen, and the professor, apparently watching himself in action, suddenly realizes that he has made a basic error.

“Oh my God!” he exclaims, “I’ve got Ohm’s law wrong.”

And so he had. Instead of writing that the voltage in a circuit is equal to current multiplied by resistance, he had written that voltage is equal to current divided by resistance. The interesting point to make here is that no one in the audience ventured to point out the error, although whether this was because no one was aware of the mistake, or because, out of deference to the professor’s status, no one dared to challenge what everyone knew was incorrect, can only be guessed.

Two years ago, Paula ran this same series of workshops in China on behalf of an international NGO. Students there unanimously selected the professor as being worthy of the hypothetical award, because, they said, he was knowledgeable. As an aside, the NGO decided to dispense with Paula’s services and instead place all the materials online, thus missing the point of the exercise, which is to provoke discussion.

The students in China were clearly unused to being asked for their opinions, but one student did point out that the professor had started with a simple example and worked towards greater complexity. Hong Kong students are much more analytical, although they are invariably taken in by the deliberately misleading inclusion of examples from prestigious American institutions like Harvard and MIT.

The problem, as Paula encourages her students to work out for themselves, is that the majority of teachers in higher education do not understand the other side of the coin, the learning process, so they follow the worn-out paradigm of the ‘sage on the stage’, and the majority of students fail to notice that they are being short-changed, lock, stock and barrel.


  1. I agree, Dennis, a good teacher makes all the difference between learning or not. My mom is a professor and teacher for teachers, too. To hold the student's interest is an essential part of imparting knowledge.

  2. Very interesting Denis! Even though Paula's demonstration (snare) made total sense, "interaction" in teaching was something I found in America. Most Chinese students (or student in many other Asian countries) are used to just "listen" from beginning of their life.

  3. Thank you for the comment Dennis.
    Could you please do a post about what you witnessed in Libya?
    It would be great for me.
    I've been following the Libyan invasion from the beginning and I have many testimonies about Qaddafi.
    It is hard to see him as a tyrant, that's what I thought of him before researching and talking to people.
    I don't think he is a good person, a fair man.
    No. But he had qualities and did things that are not reported by mainstream media.
    I remember coming to your blog and having problems to follow.
    Now I'm following.
    Thanks for explaining about the Mirror.

  4. Yunyi, do you think that the passive approach of Chinese students is down to a fear of losing face because they think that asking questions will make them look stupid?

  5. Horrid statistic says that most of the students fold in the first year, even 60% on certain Universities.

    I don't comply to that rule, but the thing is that majority of my previous professors were old school top guns who learned by hearth most of their subjects.

    Enjoyed your opinion. Looking forward to your next post.

  6. The teacher makes all the difference! Especially in a class with very dry subject matter.

  7. Denis,
    I believe so. There is an old Chinese saying:
    It means, it's ok not to speak, if you do, please be stunning!

  8. No subject matter is ever “dry” Pat; at least it isn’t in the hands of the right teacher.

  9. Thanks for that saying Yunyi. I hadn’t heard it before.

  10. I think the HK way's of education is too traditonal and lack of creativity. My son, 14 years old and currently is attending HK secondary school. My son told me that most of the teachers are reading from their scripts and can't draw good attention to the students. This seems happening to a lot of HK local schools.

    I think education should be entertaining and educational which I have learned from my previous US professor. Also, by each quarter all secondary schools should conduct students survey on each of their teachers' performance based on i.e.) how interesting they could present their topic, how educational is their information...etc.

    I have attended HK high school during 40 years ago, I don't think HK school of teaching has innovatede a lot during the past decades! A lot of teachers are till asking students to memorize a lot of stuff. I guessed that both teachers or and HK education board are not spending enough effort to improve this situation. Even though HK government has a big budget for the HK educational system. What a sad story! I think both US and Canadian high school system could be a good reference for HK education board. The credit system seems very flexible and pratical approach for HK high school.

  11. I barely managed to scrape through my 12th grade maths
    then I joined engineering and since maths was my handicap I went to a local class. The teaching philosophy here was the one which involved self teaching.It was run by one professor, an IITian,who used to make everyone sit and study whichever subject they had applied for (kids ranged from 1st grade to First year of engg. and subjects could be any or all). They could approach him only when they had given the stuff one reading and at least tried to understand the concept.
    Then when they had doubts they had to approach him and explain what they understood and where they were stuck.
    This approach helped me greatly. I scored 2nd rank in my college and since then I never had a problem studying maths on my own.
    He is one person who made me understand the one subject that I never liked in 12 years, and made me able enough to take it head on, on my own in just one semester.
    rest of the prof.s I had were more or less either Lock or Stock or Barrel.

    1. Sounds like you were lucky Sudarshan. I had two teachers whom I remember with affection: although their methods were different to those you describe, both were able to bring out the best in me by tailoring their approach to my specific needs. One, you may not be surprised to learn, was my English teacher for three years. She was succeeded by a teacher so bad she achieved the unlikely feat of turning me off Shakespeare completely [I did manage to overcome this 30 years later).


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